The light at the end of the fibre

If Ofcom is serious about fibre-optic broadband for all, it must first break the commercial logjam

Fibre to the home is the future of the net. In the UK, that future is in BT's hands. But the telco won't be rushed: when there's demand for FTTH, it says, it will do it. Otherwise how can it justify the investment?

This is perfectly sane. No incumbent with a natural monopoly can stomach making a huge investment in a project with uncertain returns, especially when the only certainty is that it will break its current business model. Who needs telephones? We have messenger boys.

Perfect sanity can be perfectly deadly. It held back ISDN, when ISDN threatened BT's entrenched Kilostream business. It held back DSL, when DSL threatened the boom in extremely lucrative dial-up internet access. Now the new internet is trying to break out, one with very high-quality video and gaming, instant access to shared worlds and enormous computing resources, and brand new ways of working. But vision isn't demand, says BT.

The rest of the world sees it — and demands it. In the US, Verizon is spending more than $20bn to roll out a fibre-optic network. In Japan, average internet access speeds are 60Mbps and rising. And at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco last week, Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner said that broadband speeds 100 times faster than present are absolutely necessary for the next generation of online experience.

The biggest risk from BT's timidity isn't that FTTH won't happen — it will — but that investors will see their chance to fund the revolution on their terms. Big media would love an HD pipe to your home, and it loves the idea of locking out the competition. BT would be peculiarly susceptible to this way of thinking.

Ofcom is committed to equivalence: connectivity for all, on equal terms. Without an equivalent and practical commitment to creating that connectivity, though, this is an empty wish.

The government has already indicated it is open to ideas of state intervention to help build the future of fibre. For all the problems this may bring, it remains the clearest, fairest and most effective way — and could help clear the path for everyone in the country to move forward.

Ofcom must overcome its rather 1990s assumption that nothing good can come from Westminster, and lead the discussion about how, not if, the UK can work for itself to get some fibre in its backbone.